Richmond's foremost formal dining experience has gone hip. After a six-month closing for remodeling and rebranding, the new Lemaire features lower prices, a bar with TVs (you can almost hear traditionalists catching their breath) and an invitation to dress up or dress down.
Lemaire's setting in a landmark hotel remains the best place in town to take Aunt Martha for her birthday -- the fine linen, silver and china, professional service and elegant architectural features, including the glass-encased porch, remain. But now it's also a great place for the 20s-to-40s crowd to gather after work for a ginger mojito and text messaging. No coats, ties or reservations are required.
The price and quality of the French-inspired Virginia food puts Lemaire competitively in the ranks of the best restaurants in town, and its subdued atmosphere, where high ceilings and multiple dining areas permit quiet conversations, offers a middle ground between the terminally hip (Millie's) and urban sophistication (Acacia).
There are two menus, for the bar and dining rooms, and diners in either place can mix and match. No entrAce on the dining menu is more than $30 (two beef dishes) and a burger with foie gras sauce is $18. Longtime chef Walter Bundy has tweaked the old menu by adopting the tricks of his trade of his mentor, Thomas Keller of Napa Valley's legendary French Laundry, and Patrick O'Connor of the Inn at Little Washington, employing new applications to old components. Thus, for example, ocean-grown coho salmon, which sold for $34, is replaced by inland farmed salmon from a Scottish lake ($28), and filet mignon, which sold for $38, gives way to grass-fed Virginia ribeye ($30).
The as-Southern-as-it-gets pork chop compares favorably with a pork loin at Millie's, which was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. Lemaire's equally special version, from Berkshire pigs raised in California, rests atop a mound of creamy mac 'n' cheese and Coca-Cola barbecue plus a side of those collard greens. Y'all, it's the real thing, and the greens are the best I can remember. The shiny leaves brim with flavor, as they're cooked with smoked ham hock, apple cider vinegar and chicken stock. If the dish doesn't come with your entrAce, order it a la carte. The extra $5 is well spent.
Diners seeking comfort food will savor the all-natural chicken breast from Ashley Farms in North Carolina, which gets a tangy boost with a horseradish cream topping and is complemented by buttermilk-chive potatoes, English peas, grape tomatoes and pearl onions.
Seafood lovers can choose among sea scallops, jumbo lump crab cakes, salmon and flounder. Roasted in herbs from the chef's garden, the flounder is fresh is from the Chesapeake Bay, and the sides are silver queen corn from the Eastern Shore, smoked sausage from Surry County, fried green tomatoes, also from the hotel's backyard, and a “paint” of pureed yellow and red bell peppers, heavy cream and green basil. Appearing on both menus is a plentiful fresh fruit salad, bearing the chef's name, dressed up with camembert goat's cheese, dandelion greens and Edwards' surryano ham.
The bar offers small plates ($7-$12), including not-to-be missed fried green tomatoes with shrimp, smoked sausage, Maytag blue cheese and sunflower shoots. Appetizers here begin at $5, for a pimento spread of white cheddar, accompanied by olives, roasted garlic and sourdough bread, or half a dozen chicken skewers coated with a calorie-laden glaze of pineapple curry, honey, vanilla and brown sugar. Half a dozen oysters on the half shell, two each from the Rappahannock, Mobjack Bay and Chincoteague, are $14.
Desserts are a uniform $7 and ample for sharing. A flourless chocolate grand marnier terrine is silky smooth; blueberry soup looks good enough to drink (but downscaling hasn't gone that far), and the crA"me brulee is lavender scented.
Bargains extend to the wine list, which still has triple-digit temptations for oenophilists yet a $20 Spanish white that's soothingly dry and crisp. Also, there are nightly promotions: A $30 three-course dinner between 5 and 6 p.m.; specialty cocktails for $8 from 4-7 p.m., and three appetizers for $20 from 10 p.m. until midnight. Cap this off with free valet parking and you have a classy, moderately priced evening in grand surroundings. S
Lemaire $$-$$$ NS
101 W. Franklin St. in the Jefferson Hotel
Dinner nightly 5-10 p.m.; Lounge nightly 4 p.m. -1 a.m. (bar menu open until midnight)
You can see Don Baker's 2003 review of Lemaire and other morsels at his blog, www.dining pro.blogspot.com.